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Tomassoni reflects on 2015 battles

In this photo taken Aug. 26, 2014, a large dump truck is driven at the Minntac taconite mine in Mountain Iron, Minn. Speaking about mining, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said, “The industry itself has changed rapidly since the early ‘80s, when we had over 16,000 people working in the mines. Now we’ve got about 4,500 working.” (AP file photo: Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe)

In this photo taken Aug. 26, 2014, a large dump truck is driven at the Minntac taconite mine in Mountain Iron, Minn. Speaking about mining, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said, “The industry itself has changed rapidly since the early ‘80s, when we had over 16,000 people working in the mines. Now we’ve got about 4,500 working.” (AP file photo: Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe)

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, has been at the middle of some of this year’s most complex and controversial legislative battles. As a labor-minded Iron Ranger, situations have often pitted him against free-market conservatives; this year, some of those daring the former professional hockey player to “drop the gloves” were his fellow Senate Democrats.

As chair of the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, Tomassoni has one of the most expansive legislative portfolios in the Senate. Now in his fifth term, Tomassoni came to the Senate in 2000, following four terms in the House. His tenure and areas of interest, as well as his status as a trusted confidante of Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, have turned Tomassoni into one of the key power brokers in the Capitol.

Tomassoni spoke to Capitol Report to revisit the controversies that arose this session, and since its end, and to ponder what might be possible heading into 2016.

Capitol Report: Let’s first go back to the end of the regular session. There were questions raised about the process that played out there, particularly around the jobs and economic development bill. Do you see why people would be upset with how things played out in the final days, and even minutes, of that session?

Tomassoni: Normally the way it works is, there would be a conference committee report. In this particular case, we weren’t able to come to an agreement on a report, so what ended up happening was the bill came together in what could be called an unconventional way. People were claiming they didn’t know what was in the bill, but it really wasn’t anything new in the bill that hadn’t been seen at some point in time. But, yeah, I can see why some people could be upset. It was an amendment at 11 o’clock at night, and had to be passed at midnight. The way it played out was unconventional. So, yeah, it was a little bit frustrating.

CR: Pieces of the environment and agriculture omnibus bill were very controversial with your fellow Senate Democrats. How did you explain some of the environmental policy pieces to your caucus?

Tomassoni: I think there was a lot of overreaction first of all. There were people claiming our water standards were being changed, and there weren’t any standards changed. Secondly, when you have Democrats in control of one body and Republicans in control of another, you end up with compromises on things, and oftentimes people aren’t happy with compromise. It’s very normal for you not to get everything you want when there’s divided government. I think the frustration some people showed was a little overblown. And, secondly, there was some things that happened that were pretty necessary to happen for rural Minnesota. The way it ended up, I don’t think it was bad for Minnesota.

CR: Were there parts of that bill that even you didn’t like?

Tomassoni: I tried to get it to a point where I was comfortable with it, at least. We were compromising with House Republicans and, in the end, with the governor. While I probably would’ve had more things in the bill if it hadn’t been like that, but I was comfortable with what was happening. The governor vetoed the bill, but then renegotiated to the point where, based on what we heard, he was satisfied with it.

I also think there was a bit of theater [during the special session], because, we weren’t on the Senate floor. The bill didn’t pass on the first try only because people weren’t aware of the vote count. I think had we been on the Senate floor, people would have counted, and we would’ve passed the bill the first time. We actually would’ve been out of there at noon, instead of 2 o’clock in the morning.

CR: There was talk at that time that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk might have lost the confidence of his caucus. Were you hearing that, and did you play any role fixing relationships?

Tomassoni: I’m not going to get involved in questions about what went on in caucus. There was a lot of speculation, but he is still the majority leader, so, I’ll leave it at that.

CR: Throughout this year there has been a series of bad news announcements for the mining industry. What can be done at the state level to alleviate those problems?

Tomassoni: It’s very difficult to do things at the state level. We did some things in the legislative session to try and lighten the load a little bit for mining companies, but in the end, the international conditions are very difficult to affect at the state level. We did some things with electrical rates … and at the local level we rebated taxes for mining companies that reinvest. And actually that’s one of the things that has worked really, really well over the years.

The industry itself has changed rapidly since the early ‘80s, when we had over 16,000 people working in the mines. Now we’ve got about 4,500 working. But they’re producing the same amount of [taconite] pellets as they were back in the ‘80s, because the equipment has gotten so much bigger, and it’s more efficient. At the same time, these are our jobs, and this is our industry.

CR: One of your Iron Range colleagues, David Dill, suddenly fell ill and died earlier this summer. How will you remember him?

Tomassoni: He was one of these people who was bigger than life in a lot of ways. He was a wonderful individual, and I got along with him really well. He always had a smile on his face. He worked really hard in the Legislature, he was very effective at working both sides of the aisle. His family was very important to him. He talked all the time about his fishing camp up on Canada, with his son and his wife. He was one of these people that will be remembered well for a really long time.

CR: You were one of the most vocal opponents for having a special session to address the walleye crisis on Lake Mille Lacs. Why were you so certain of that position?

Tomassoni: First of all, the walleye crisis was something we couldn’t fix with a special session. It’s been going on for about 18 years. So that’s one thing. The second thing is I didn’t talk to any legislators who wanted a special session. Thirdly, the main reason for a special session would’ve been to provide some relief for resort owners. That was the reason I was urging the [Department of Natural Resources] to reopen the season, so that we could at least get to Labor Day weekend with the preservation of the industry. We were getting deluged by other legislators, saying, “If we’re going to do it for a walleye crisis in Mille Lacs, why aren’t we doing it for my industry in my district?” In my district, if there are mining layoffs, should we then say all the businesses across the … Iron Range get relief? Should the main street of Ely get relief? You can go on and on and on. We were actually getting text messages from members while we were sitting at the committee table, saying that. It was really hard to think it through.

CR: It seems obvious that a tax bill, new transportation funding and a bonding bill will be linked together as part of negotiations next session. Do you see a path forward for all three?

Tomassoni: Well, it’s a really good question, and I guess I don’t know the answer to it. I think the three could be linked, but I also believe that two of the links could fall out. I think at the very least we’ll be able to pass a bonding package. The need is there, the low [interest] rates are there, and I think the willingness to do it is there.  I think that’ll happen for sure. I also think about the fact we have a pretty substantial surplus right now. We left about $900 million on the bottom line, and I think there has been another $700 million in new surplus revenue collected. There could be a substantial amount of money available to us, and that could have an effect on how legislators react to this situation.

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